Categorized | Cohen_Joel_H., Lighter Side

More bar than mitzvah?

By Joel H. Cohen

Joel H. Cohen

NEW YORK — The trio celebrated in so many jokes — a priest, minister and rabbi — were discussing a mutual problem: how to rid their respective houses of worship of a stubborn family of squirrels who’d taken residence there.

The priest and minister had valid ideas, but the topper came from the rabbi (the inevitable star of these stories when we tell them). “Give the squirrels a Bar Mitzvah celebration,” he said, “and they’ll never be seen in shul again.”

Too often, outside of Orthodox circles, the same can be said about Bar and Bat Mitzvah-age kids. There are exceptions, of course. Some do attend regularly, others occasionally, and some respond to calls for yahrtzeit minyans. But many step into shul only rarely again.

We shouldn’t tell the kids coming of age – caterers and party-planners certainly won’t –but a Jewish boy or girl becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah simply by reaching the required age. Of course, the youngsters have to be in shul for their first call to the Torah.

My grandfather used to quote a saying that the rite had become more bar than mitzvah. To make it more meaningful, service projects—mitzvahs to go with the bar — such as entertaining at nursing homes or designating cash gifts for charity, have become a meaningful , relevant part of preparation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a party, but often that’s what gets the emphasis, and too often it’s excessive.

Very few match the excess of the event in the Midwest, years ago, at which a quarterback hired by the Bar Mitzvah boy’s football-fan father, began festivities by tossing a football-shaped challah to the boy, to start the festivities. Or another father, apparently a millionaire, hired a stadium for his son’s celebration.

We’ve received invitations to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, whose elaborate multi-paneled invitation and the postage surely cost more than my entire reception did. My event was an open house at my grandmother’s, up the street from the shul.

In those Dark Ages, almost all my peers had at-home celebrations. One exception was a friend whose father was owed a debt by the owner of a hall.

With our own boys –was didn’t know of Bat Mitzvahs or Bas Torahs when our daughter became of age – we were determined not to have an extravaganza

So we started simply, hoping to celebrate in our backyard. Bur the event was to be in February, a likely bad-weather time, and our house couldn’t accommodate the people we’d be inviting — relatives, friends, neighbors, others who had invited us to their celebrations. So we hired a hall. But we avoided excesses – no challah-toss. And what we did for our oldest son, we did for his brothers.

I’m told that in the Old Country (Russia or Poland), the usual Bar Mitzvah commonly involved the boy, his father and his zayde (with maybe a couple of other relatives) coming to shul on a Monday or Thursday morning when the boy could be called to the Torah. The refreshments: schnapps and maybe kichel . A wealthy family might spring for herring.

Today, in most instances, understatement has gone under,. And, in any case, a super celebration doesn’t necessarily translate into attendance at services..

One draw when I was a kid was knowing that if I wanted to see my friends on a Saturday morning, shul was where they’d surely be.

But too often today, the friends aren’t at services, either.

A question confronting the rabbinate and congregants is how to get the squirrels out while getting and keeping the kids in

And that’s no joke.

Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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